We visit Leicester this weekend for the final league game of (domestically at least) a disappointing season. Until a couple of games ago we weren’t mathematically safe from relegation, although personally I have been confident for some time now, despite some inconsistent performances that have meant that we didn’t pull away from potential trouble as quickly as we might have done. From dropping into the bottom 3 (18th) with 15 games to go, the season since then has seen us in varying positions, never higher than 13th or lower than 17th. We are 14th as we head into the final game, and realistically (ignoring ridiculous goal difference swings) we can only finish between 13th and 15th. Disappointing after two seasons finishing 6th and 7th.
The final league table splits very neatly into a top half and bottom half with Fulham in 10th well clear of the teams in the bottom half. I had a look back at the predictions I made before the season began. To a certain extent the Premier League is predictable these days with money being an important factor. I still managed to put three teams in the top half (Chelsea, West Ham and Wolves) who will finish in the lower half, and conversely I forecast Villa, Brentford and Fulham to be in the bottom half, and they have all had good seasons and are comfortably in the top 10. At that time I predicted Southampton, Forest and Bournemouth to be relegated so I only got one right. I’m also in a score prediction competition where I predict the scores of all West Ham games. Although I’ve correctly predicted some of the results I haven’t got the score correct once all season! The closest I got was to forecast a 0-0 draw in the away lag in Alkmaar. That was close.
But my predictions weren’t all that bad. When there were still a dozen or so games to go I did say that 37 or 38 points would be enough to escape the drop and even 34 or 35 might be. And at the time I suggested 3 from 5 to go down, namely Southampton, Leicester, Forest, Everton and Leeds, so pretty accurate there too. One comment from a reader on my predictions suggested I didn’t have a clue and that West Ham, Forest and Bournemouth were the ones for the drop. Their predictions didn’t turn out to be too accurate! It just shows how difficult it can be to make predictions in football. I did also predict that Manchester City would win the Premier League. That one wasn’t too difficult to forecast though!
It is a fascinating end of the season in terms of who will be relegated, and Sky will obviously be delighted that as many as three teams are still fighting to stay up. Everton will survive if they beat Bournemouth. If they only draw or lose then Leicester can survive by beating West Ham. Leeds, who had survival in their own hands after 25 minutes of last week’s game at the London Stadium, need to beat a poor Tottenham team to have any chance of staying up, and hope that neither Leicester win nor Everton win or draw, unless they can beat Spurs by three goals if Everton do draw. Here’s my prediction – all three teams might win their final games meaning Leicester and Leeds will be relegated. But then again they might not! I hope that we beat Leicester, as I always hope we win games, but I’m not feeling too confident. Of the three teams in trouble I’d like to see Leicester survive in some ways as I dislike the other two more, but I don’t think they will. I just have a feeling that whatever Leeds and Leicester do it won’t matter as Everton will beat Bournemouth.
There has been much conjecture as to the team David Moyes will select for this last league game. With an important European final to come ten days later does he pick a team to continue the recent momentum, or does he rest the majority of the team he wants for the final to avoid any unnecessary injuries? Or somewhere in between? How important is the £2.2 million for each incremental position in the final table when compared to the prospect of a second European trophy for the club and automatic entry into next season’s Europa League? If we do manage to beat Leicester this weekend it would only be the second time this season when we have won two league matches in a row (the first was at the beginning of October beating Wolves and Fulham at home).
Our performances in Europe have been in stark contrast to our domestic form, partly perhaps due to the strength (or lack of it) of opposition, but nevertheless still impressive. How will we reflect on the season if we win the Europa Conference whilst finishing 13th-15th in the league? It will certainly be some consolation, and a gateway to a third successive European campaign, but would we have taken that before the season began?
For me, it has not been so much about the league results, although they have mostly been poor or inconsistent, but the performances themselves. For the most part the football played has not been pleasing on the eye. The lack of ambition, the lone striker, the fear of the opposition (particularly top sides), the reliance on set pieces, the inability to hold on to the ball, the lack of players with pace, and an unnecessarily over-cautious approach to games all contribute to the disappointment.
After we went a goal down in a lethargic 25 minutes at the start of the Leeds game, the shackles came off and for more than an hour we played some delightful stuff against a tiring opposition. But why couldn’t we start the game on the front foot? It’s almost as if the players are told to be cautious, don’t concede, and only have a go if we do fall behind. Perhaps they are? And what an excellent game from Paqueta! He really has begun to look the part in recent games.
It seems certain that Declan Rice will be on his way to new pastures. What a superb player he has been for us; it would be great to round it off lifting the Europa Conference trophy on June 7th. He really is irreplaceable and it will be interesting to see who we can manage to attract to the club this summer. James Ward-Prowse, Kalvin Phillips and Harvey Barnes are three of the names already being touted, all England internationals, and two of them play in central midfield, but I’m sure there will be many more suggested once the transfer window opens. I read these names but after so many years now of reading about players we are allegedly linked with I wait until I see the photo of a new recruit in a claret and blue shirt with their arms crossed before I believe it. If (when) Rice goes, wouldn’t it be good to do the necessary transfer business and have replacements in place well before the new season begins? We never seem to achieve that though, do we?
What will happen in the game at Leicester? I’m sure David Moyes would like to beat them for his own professional pride to ensure West Ham finish as high as possible in the final table. It wouldn’t do his old club on Merseyside any harm if that were the case either. My final prediction of the league season – a 2-2 draw. What are the chances?